It’s a familiar narrative: Robots and other forms of automation, while good for driving business efficiencies, are a death knell for the modern workforce.
Yet introducing robots to the workforce could serve as a positive force, delivering benefits to corporations as well as to the workforce and global economy.
“The zero-sum [take] is that companies become more profitable, more productive, even more flexible, but the consequence is that workers get displaced and are less valued,” said Ben Armstrong, a research scientist and executive director at MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, at the 2022 MIT Digital Technology and Strategy Conference.
“We don’t see automation displacing workers — in fact, it’s the opposite,” he said. “Firms that invest in automation equipment like robots or advanced software end up being more profitable and hiring more people.”
There has actually been too little automation, Armstrong contended. Slightly less than 10% of U.S. manufacturers have deployed industrial robots, due to design limitations, workforce challenges, and high integration costs. Slow productivity growth among small and midsize companies over the past few years is one indicator that there might not be enough technology deployed to drive competitive advantage, he said.
In a 2021 report, the International Federation of Robotics indicated that installations of new robots grew only slightly in 2020 worldwide, except in China, which saw a 20% increase. The latest report, however, shows growth in robot installations in all major markets and regions, including a 31% increase in North America and a 24% increase in Europe in 2021.
Achieving “positive-sum automation” starts with understanding why it can be so challenging for companies, as well as creating more flexible tools, Armstrong said.
Barriers to robot adoption
Robot adoption has remained flat for several reasons, said Armstrong, who co-leads the MIT Work of the Future initiative. The biggest inhibitor by far is a lack of digital skills, which are essential for building a workforce that’s able to effectively configure, operate, and repair robots and automation systems. Proficiency in specific programming languages and other skills remain scant in manufacturing companies of all sizes. Only 18.6% of new production-related jobs in manufacturing have a digital skills requirement, Armstrong said, which means few incoming workers are qualified to optimize robots and automation for true business advantage.
Only 18.6% of new production-related jobs in manufacturing have a digital skills requirement.
Companies are also struggling with robot flexibility. Organizations need to be able to continuously adapt robots and automated systems to changes in the environment. Most robots and automation tools function as black box systems, which makes it next to impossible for the average worker to understand how the tools operate, let alone seamlessly switch between systems to get a specific task done.
“We see positive-sum automation as overcoming these barriers with technology applications that deliver productivity gains,” Armstrong said. “The goal is for a high-throughput, highly repetitive automated system that can also improve flexibility, has an ability to switch between products, and can add innovations and adapt as the business grows and changes.”
A path to productive automation
Armstrong and his colleague Julie Shah, an MIT professor who leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, have developed a three-pronged, multidisciplinary approach aimed at reducing complexity and helping organizations achieve more widespread and productive automation. Their approach addresses the following elements:
Design. Most robots are difficult to program and especially hard to reprogram to worker specifications, which means they often remain unused. Armstrong recounted the struggle of a midsize Ohio-based manufacturer that invested in a collaborative robot so it could add another shift without the pain of finding workers in a tight labor market. After consultants completed the initial configuration and setup, there was no one on staff who could program the robot, which left it sitting idle. Large companies like Tesla have also had well-documented struggles operationalizing robots and implementing so-called lights-out manufacturing. There are reports of robots breaking delicate parts as well as causing other miscues that require human intervention to get operations back on track.
Armstrong said companies should look for robot designs that are more accessible and adaptable. The addition of an intuitive user interface and low-code capabilities will allow workers to adapt robots to the external environment and make changes on their own without having to hire expensive consultants or incurring high switching costs. In this scenario, robots can work in tandem with technicians to assemble equipment — with the robot manipulating heavy assembly while the human performs the dexterous work, for example. The upside is more productive assembly that improves overall job quality.
Integration. Historically, robots and automation system have required specific programming skills and a reliance on external partners for programming and maintenance throughout the life cycle. Taking a bottom-up deployment approach can shift this dynamic and empower internal workers to step in as the experts. Armstrong cited a hospital system that employed robotic process automation software to automate mundane administrative tasks. Instead of having C-level executives decide what processes to automate, the hospital took a bottom-up approach, allowing internal personnel responsible for the tasks to have input and receive training to program the software themselves. The result was administrative teams who were thrilled to avoid the “soul-sucking” work of routine tasks and instead focus on the work they liked most, Armstrong said. Executives, having achieved more efficient operations, were happy as well, he added.
Measurement. To get around the black box system limitations, it’s important to combine investment in automation technology with a comparable investment in employee training. One small manufacturer trained workers and then linked overall machining hours to bonuses. The more streamlined the processes were, the more likely it was that the employee would receive a bonus. This change, coupled with a wage hike to compensate for additional skill requirements, resulted in more productive automation.
Armstrong said that by embracing the concept of flexible automation, organizations will get more mileage from their investments. In scenarios with repetitive, high-volume tasks or labor shortages, robots can serve as a more productive workforce. But automation shines when robots and humans work together as a team to deliver high-quality products to customers or innovate new products and processes.
“With more flexibility, robots and software become tools that help teams become better at tasks,” Armstrong said. “They aren’t just doing the highly predictable tasks — they are also adjusting as the team figures out better ways to solve problems.”